The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
Jelaluddin Rumi, 13th century mystic poet.
Why I Wanted to Become an Early Riser
Always start your smart habits with why. Your reasons to do something is unique to you. Don’t borrow anyone else’s reasons and don’t start any habit without first knowing precisely why.
I believed that somewhere in me, early rising would bring me closer to who I was meant to be. I believed that in an inexplicable way, it would help me understand what I really want in life as I floated in the space between solitude and gratitude in those early pre-dawn hours. I believed that perhaps, early rising would add more significance to my life quests and make me a better version of myself.
Of course, that is the poetic side of it and to that part I still hold on with all my heart and soul. But then there is practical side: Early rising is the single best way to make the most of your days and hours, and when you are clear on your life’s purpose and your quest to fulfill it, the one thing you need more than anything on earth is time, baby, TIME!
My best advice to you is to always listen to your body and to approach the early rising challenge with an extremely positive, non-judgmental attitude.
Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.
The 21-Day 4:30am Early Rising Challenge
The rules of this challenge were simple: Go to bed at a decent time. Wake up at 4:30am every single day. Never snooze. Take a nap if you are extremely tired in the afternoons. Meditate 10-15 minutes immediately upon rising with the Re-Awakening tracks in a sitting or lying down position on the yoga mat. If you mess up any of the rules, no berating or criticizing allowed. Be extra loving and gentle with yourself. Listen to your body. Tune out your stubborn chatter-box mind!
Why 21 days? Just to experiment with the 21-days to build a habit philosophy.
What I found out? That as the days and weeks moved on, it was easier to wake up, as long as I did not stay up too late. I could feel the routine working its magic in my body. It was never a shock to get up at 4:30am, it was just mildly challenging. However, I am not so convinced there is anything special about 21 days, 25 or 30 or 17 might work for someone else. I do believe that anything over 2 weeks gets your body in a place where it starts to expect the behavior and thus, you are more willing to perform said behavior.
The morning routine upon rising
I would go to bed sometime between 10:15 to 11:30pm, leaning more towards the former. Mostly I averaged out arrival to sleepy-town at around 10:45pm. I would put my alarm in the bathroom and walk to turn it off at 4:30am. Then I would go to my yoga mat and meditate for 10-15minutes. I would either sit or lie down and sometimes, I dozed off during meditation slightly. The only meditation routine that worked for me was this brilliant new product for which I am a proud affiliate: The Re-Awakening. The voice of my friend, Angela Artemis, is beyond soothing.
Then I would either go to my office to work with my cup of hot Oolong tea and some food, or else I would get ready to make my 5:45am cycling classes. The days when I exercised in the morning, I always felt better. I kept a pretty rigorous cardiovascular exercise regimen during the early rising challenge and this reminds me to tell you: All smart habits link together and build up on each other. Remember that!
FYI: I was recovering big time from a neck injury during the challenge and getting lots of chiropractic adjustments and I still did just fine.
The 21-day challenge detailed results:
Day 1 Fri Mar 23rd 4:30am – PM Walk and stretches.
Day 2 Sat Mar 24th 4:30am – PM Walk and some yoga.
Day 3 Sun Mar 25th 4:30am – AM 100-min Power Yoga.
Day 4 Mon Mar 26th 4:30am – Early AM 60-min cycle & 60-min resistance training.
Day 5 Tue Mar 27th 4:30am – PM 60-min cycle.
Day 6 Wed Mar 28th 4:30am – AM 60-min yoga and resistance training.
Day 7 Thu Mar 29th 4:30am – Rested from exercise – 60-min nap.
Day 8 Fri Mar 30th 4:30am – Early AM 60-min cycle – 60-min nap.
Day 9 Sat Mar 31st 4:30am – Rested from exercise.
Day 10 Sun Apr 1st 4:30am – AM 60-min cycle & 100-min power yoga – 60-min nap.
Day 11 Mon Apr 2nd 4:30am – PM 60-min cycle.
Day 12 Tue Apr 3rd 4:30am – Fell asleep 20min past meditation. PM 60-min cycle.
Day 13 Wed Apr 4th 4:30am – Rested from exercise.
Day 14 Thu Apr 5th 4:30am – AM 60-min cycle & PM 100-min yoga – 30-min nap.
Day 15 Fri Apr 6th 4:30am – PM 60-min cycle – 90-min massage.
Day 16 Sat Apr 7th 4:30am – PM Walk and stretches.
Day 17 Sun Apr 8th 4:30am – Back to bed at 5:15 for 60min. AM 60-min cycle & 100-min Power yoga.
Day 18 Mon Apr 9th 4:30am – AM 60-min cycle
Day 19 Tue Apr 10th 4:30am – AM 60-min cycle
Day 20 Wed Apr 11th 4:30am – Back to bed at 6 for 2hours. Rested from exercise.
Day 21 Thu Apr 12th 4:30am – AM 60-min cycle & PM 100-min yoga
Overall summary of the challenge
Well, as far as getting up at 4:30am, I did that every day! However, I went back to bed 2 times in the 21 days and rest assured, there was not a single day when the thought did not enter my mind! 😉 I consider that a beautiful success.
I felt good and energetic about an hour after getting up. Not Immediately. So even though it was slowly becoming more of a habit, I was not waking up with tons of energy ready to run! It took me an hour to get going. Most of the day felt very good and afternoons would sometimes slow down. I would take a nap, as you can see, if I felt very sleepy. If I felt very tired but not sleepy, I would meditate or take a break from working.
All in all, this has been one of the hardest challenges, even though I have gotten up at 4:30am very regularly when doing my 5:45am classes in the past year or two, but not consistently for a period of 21 days and not when I did not have a class to attend.
Early Birds or Night Owls Are Not Born, They Are Made
Before we get too deep into this topic, let’s get something out in the open. To my surprise, I’ve found that this is a sensitive topic, so I am covering my body with protective shields as I say it: You are not born an early bird or a night owl. You make yourself into one.
Early birds are people who get up early and night owls are people who go to bed late. The early and late are relative. You get to define it. For me, an early bird gets up before 5am and a night owl is up past midnight.
And just as you make yourself into one, you can just as easily un-make yourself and then re-make yourself into the other. It will be some work and effort – no magic wands, sorry! – but you won’t be changing your personality traits or your genes because the becoming an early riser has little to do with that and everything to do with mindset, habits, and routines. That is the best kind of change to undergo!
So if you ever say “I can’t wake up early. I am a night owl.”, you really mean: “I don’t want to get up early. I want to stay up late and that is how my body is now conditioned to operate.” You say this based on the belief that you cannot do it. That is your mind lying to you and your ego protecting that lie. Your body is capable of so much more!
I will refrain from going into the argument of whether night owls are more or less productive than early birds. That is irrelevant. If early rising is only about more productivity for you, then that may not be a strong enough reason to sustain your habit for the long term, even though you will be more alert and efficient during the early hours of dawn following a night of sleep than the late hours of the evening before going to sleep. Like I said, I won’t get into this one. I can be convinced that night owls are extremely productive, because I have had productive phases as one.
Early rising would be a great experiment for you if you have been a night owl for a long time and now want to experiment with a different system for your body either out of curiosity or because your current routine does not seem as productive as you think you can be. Now that is a great reason to explore early rising.
I’ll tell you how the sun rose a ribbon at a time.
The Very Beginning of This Early Rising Journey
My first obsession with early rising came in 2007. I read something, I felt something, and I decided that I needed to become an early riser. At first it was casual curiosity: What if I could get up early every day? Oh imagine what I can accomplish! Imagine how productive the day would be! Imagine how I would go from being frantic to being calm and centered. I was salivating at the prospect of it.
Then I tried to wake up early a few times, and realized just how hard this is going to be. My ego was badly bruised, let me tell you. I realized just how much I had over-estimated my own powers of accomplishing this enormously challenging habit. Subsequently, in the face of this obstacle, the stubborn human being in me jumped to an obsessive phase rather than the understanding phase of what was really happening. Like I said, it was very early in my self-discovery journey and I was very harsh with my own body those days. It was all about pushing, forcing, disciplining, and punishing myself, and the more my mind persisted, the more the natural rhythms of my body rejected my decision to wake up before 5am. A losing battle as you can imagine.
Of course, it did not help that all my life, I’ve had a combative relationship with sleep: Quite simply put, I consider sleep a complete waste of human life. It is a real tragedy that we have to sleep away our precious hours when so much else is waiting to be done. Can you even picture what our lives would be like if we needed one hour of sleep every 24 hours instead of 6 or 8?
Alas, apparently, we need sleep like we do air and water, so we might as well stop fighting it and invent brilliant ways to hack it. Hence, this journal on sleep hacking. Here I share with you my honest experience with a 21-day challenge to get up every single day at 4:30am. I share with you what works and what does not work in this sleep hacking process, what exactly happened and what I will be doing going forward.
The 15 Approaches to Early Rising that You Must Avoid
Over the years, I have tried many approaches to early rising. Here are some of the methods that did not work:
Before Getting Up – 9 Things to Avoid
1- Going back to sleep obviously! This is a no-brainer. Your alarm goes off. You realize that it was really a stupid idea that you decided to do this last night. You go back to sleep. The end.
2- Snoozing even once: (especially dangerous if combined with snuggling with your significant other!): Your body will resist waking up no matter what so if there is an easy way to go back to sleep, it will find it and do it, and your willpower is weak first thing in the morning and your senses are just adjusting to the day ahead so you want to avoid snoozing at all costs. Snoozing is going to make you extremely grouchy and tired later because it really messes up with your sleep cycle. This is the one thing to absolutely avoid at all costs.
3- Putting the alarm next to the bed: If the alarm is within hands reach, you will turn it off and are very likely to sleep more or snooze again or turn it off altogether. Tell me if this is not true? In fact, it won’t be uncommon for you to sometimes not even remember that you turned it off. Your alarm needs to be in a place where you walk a few paces to it and still hear it when it goes off.
4- Choosing soft music to wake you up: I have tried many different genres of music and either with the alarm itself playing the soft music or with the radio or iPod playing it a few minutes before the alarm goes off. The soft music never works for me in the pre-wake-up phase. I would prefer to wake up to a distinct sound.
5- Letting your natural cycle wake you up without an alarm: I read about how you should ideally wake up without an alarm, and this method apparently also works for early rising. I never, ever had any success with this, even when I used a crazy technique that a friend suggested which goes like this: Right before going to sleep, hit your head on the pillow as many times as the desired wake-up hour number. So if you are waking up at 6am, you (gently) hit your head on the pillow 6 times. This magic trick only messed up my hair before falling asleep!
6- Using a random wake-up time: As I will later tell you the importance of sleep cycles, this will make more sense. Suffice it to say here that 5am does not work as an ideal wake-up time for everyone. You need to shoot for the end of your sleep cycle.
7- Using different wake-up times each day: If you are waking up at 6am one day and 5am the next and 7am the one after, it will really throw your body out of whack and make it very difficult to develop a pattern. This is fine during experimentation phase if you are trying to figure out when your sleep cycle ends or what time works best for you but not when you are on your early rising challenge.
8- Allowing the mind chatter to talk you into going back to sleep: If you don’t have an idea what you will be doing, your mind will come up with one for you but it’s usually not the one that your better judgement would have preferred. Your mind chatter first thing in the morning is loud and obnoxious and since you are barely awake and your willpower is sound asleep, it’s very likely that your chatter will talk you into going back to sleep.
9- Dreading the sounding alarm when it goes off: This is all about attitude. If you immediately have the feeling of dread when you hear your alarm, if your mind fills up with negative thoughts and starts to resent yourself for such an idea, you will fail miserably every time and your morning will be already starting on a sour note. Plus, you do plenty of harm and damage to your own self-esteem.
The sun has not caught me in bed in fifty years.
After Getting Up – 6 Things to Avoid:
1 – Going back to bed obviously: Yes, I know I am being a bit clever but make going back to bed an absolute no-no rule. My husband’s rules are simple: he does not mind my crazy early alarm at 4:30am as long as I do not do it twice in the same morning, meaning no snoozing, no waking him up twice!
2 – Sleeping somewhere other than your bed: What? You mean I am the only one who has gone back to sleep on the bathroom rug in child’s pose? Oh I’ve had some great naps that way! So yes, do not allow yourself to go back to sleep somewhere else in your house!
3 – Not having a specific plan for when you get up: I don’t mean you have an agenda or a list of 5 things to do. I mean that you need to know in advance – as in, before you go to sleep the night before – what you will do upon rising, at least for the first 2 hours. You need to be clear about this in advance and not leave it up to the moment to decide. The more specific you are, the more successful you will be.
4 – Skipping the awakening phase: If you don’t brush your teeth and your hair and put some lotion on your dehydrated face and drink some water right upon rising, you will have a really hard time waking up your body and internal organs from sleepiness, and this will make that mind chatter really loud and pull you back into sleep phase.
5 – Staying in an extra warm room or turning on the heater: It is natural to feel chilly first thing you wake up, yet ironically, the worst thing to do is to go into a very warm room. I remember I would turn on my heater in the winters and crank up the temperature to a sauna and barely be able to keep my eyes open to write. Don’t do that!
6 – Reading: As much as I love, LOVE, reading, I don’t do it first thing in the morning. It is the best medicine to put you right back to sleep, especially if you are lying down. If you are studying and have interaction with the material more so than just consuming it, then that might work better. Otherwise, I would move reading down the list to-do things upon rising.
7- Not doing anything stimulating: The best thing to do first thing in the morning is meditation and exercise, in whatever order works for you because they are stimulating. You can do whatever you want as long as it has some level of stimulation. You can write, you can work, you can organize, you can do email, you can go for a walk, you can write code, whatever that gives your brain some stimulation.
The early morning hath gold in its mouth.
Remember not to rely on your willpower or your sense of self-discipline to kick in when that alarm goes off. Early rising is more about setting intentions and being loving with firmness and kindness.
How Much Sleep You Need
I do understand the importance of sleep to our survival on all levels, physical, emotional, psychological, and I do not want to discourage anyone from getting plenty of sleep and rest. It is natural to cut on sleep when we are in a hurry to get so much done with our lives, and to feel that we get ahead by sleeping less but the real intelligence tells us that we need sleep to function well and we do our best after plenty of rest.
The how much part is where I am still experimenting but so far, here is my finding: As you can see from my results, I ended up functioning great on 6 hours of sleep, sometimes on 5, as long as I caught up with a power nap 2 sometimes 3 times a week. This averaged out to about 6.5 hours a night. During those hours, I was in very restful sleep. Except for one restless night, I can say that I slept extremely soundly during the hours of sleep, and dreamt vivid dreams and I know for a fact that a night of 6-hour quality sleep far outweighs a night of 8-hour restless worrisome sleep. So the quality of your sleep is extremely important and if you can maximize the quality of your sleep, you may perhaps find that you will function better on less than 8 hours of sleep. It is different for all of us.
The Importance of Knowing Your Sleep Cycles
One thing that has proven extremely helpful to me in my early rising journey is the better understanding of my sleep cycles.
At first, I was experimenting with waking up any time between 5am and 6am and I was having an extremely hard time. Then I started to experiment with an earlier time to see if it might make a difference so I chose 4:30am and it was easier. I kept experimenting and 9 times out of 10, 4:30am was the best time for me to wake up if given the choice of any hour between 4:00am to 6:00am. The next best hour to get up was 6:00am or 7:30am. Getting up anywhere in between was torture. So it turns out that my sleep cycle ends around 4:30 and if I can get up before the next cycle starts, I am happier than if I wake up in the middle of the next cycle. Because 6:00am is too late, I decided to work on 4:30am as my set rising hour, and then based on that, identify the best time to go to bed.
Wikipedia says: In humans, the average length of the first sleep cycle is approximately 90 minutes and 100 to 120 minutes from the second to the fourth cycle, which is usually the last one.
So if a sleep cycle is around 90 minutes, that makes sense because 4:30am, 6:00am and 7:30am all work out to the end of a cycle. Now the real question is whether that is significantly affected if I go to bed at 10:30 versus 10:45 versus 11:15 etc. I found that as long as I was asleep between 10:15 and 11:00pm, I felt just fine with my 4:30am rising and had plenty of energy during the day, with the occasional 2-3 naps per week.
Wikipedia says: A number of studies have concluded that a short period of sleep during the day, a power nap does not have any measurable effect on normal circadian rhythms, but can decrease stress and improve productivity.
My challenge did not exclude naps by any means. I feel that I have come to deserve that nap by 3pm in the afternoon and I bask in its glory even if it’s for 30 minutes. Usually, I try to allow 30-45minutes. That may be longer than a “power nap” but I wake up refreshed and happy. It takes me a few minutes to get going, but the evening hours become just as productive and I am happy with myself.
The Challenge Conclusion and the Early Rising Plan Moving Forward
I admit, the last two days, I have slept past 4:30am and it has been incredible! I won’t deny the pleasure of sleeping in once in a while! Of course, I am also doubling up on my exercise routine so I may be needing the extra “la la”, as we say in Farsi.
So what is the plan going forward?
I am feeling SO inspired by this challenge. want to be kind and gentle with my body and make the best decision for it. I want to stay committed to 4:30am because 6:00am would rob me of some early morning joy and activity. So I have decided to rise at 4:30am Mondays through Fridays and sleep in until 6:00am or 7:30am on weekends. This is of course without travel plans interfering.
Lifestyle is always going to be a challenge when you are a super early riser, so flexibility and forgiveness must become your best friends if you are to maintain this habit long term. I’m already great buddies with both of them because early rising brings me closer to everything I want to create.
How to wake up early is an incredible resource for early rising that I found during the writing of this post.
Last but not least, I think this time I succeeded with my early rising quest because I was not going to FORCE myself to do this. I just set an intention for this challenge with heaps of love and understanding and respect for myself and I really believe that is why it worked.
What about you? Are you an early riser, a night owl, or somewhere in between? Do you have a quest for early rising? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Few ever lived to a great age, and fewer still ever became distinguished; who were not in the habit of early using.